Working in science is rarely (if ever) easy. It’s usually a field where you’re overworked and underpaid, and especially if you’re a young researcher — it’s riddled with insecurities. You may not get this feel from movies or literature, but being an early-career stressful is oftentimes very stressful and unrewarding. When you consider all this, it’s not surprising that early PhDs have very high rates of anxiety and depression.
Having access to good mentors or models can alleviate at least a bit of that burden. A good mentor provides a scaffolding upon which an early career researcher can grow and develop. Unfortunately, some leading researchers aren’t necessarily good mentors or don’t care about it this much. But Harold Varmus does.
At the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, where dozens of Nobel Laureates meet up with young researchers every year, Varmus addressed the importance of supporting young researchers multiple times.
Failure and success
In the mid 1970s, Varmus discovered genes that can cause cancer being carried by viruses. He also showed that these genes don’t originate from the virus, but are picked up from normal cells and incorporated into the virus. Over several decades, he’s made various contributions to cancer research and he also co-founded the Public Library of Science (PLOS), a not-for-profit publisher of biomedical research. He should also know a bit about how important support is for young researchers.
Varmus was twice rejected from Harvard Medical School. After that, the entered the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and later worked at a missionary hospital in Bareilly, India, and the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. Speaking in front of a packed room of up-and-coming researchers (and a few fellow Nobel Laureates), Varmus shared his insights on having a good life in science.
“You know, advice works for one person. Everybody’s different. Everybody gets different kinds of pleasures and rewards and disappointments from science. So what I’ve tried to do is put together 10 statements, axioms, rules that I’ve lived by. These worked for me and I don’t think they’ll work for all of you, or even any of you,” the laureate quipped. “But they represent, I think, useful adages.”
So here are Varmus’ lessons on a life in science (you can see the entire session at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting website).
1. Embrace a prolonged adolescence… then seize the day!
Curiosity is always a core quality for a good researcher, and having the chance to explore your curiosity is very important for a career in science, Varmus says.
“I went to college, a liberal arts college, I majored in English for a thesis about Charles Dickens, then on to Harvard Graduate School and English and Learn Anglo Saxon, and then decided that I would after all go to medical school.”
“I still look back on that prolonged adolescence with a lot of love and don’t feel it was a waste of time.
2. Choose scientific questions that are: interesting, long range, technically feasible … and may even someday have societal benefit
Finding the right questions to answer as a scientist — that should also be realistic.
“These questions should interest you passionately. You should look for long range questions that take many years to answer and very importantly, should be technically feasible. Most of the successful scientists I know have asked questions that can be solved with techniques that exist today and it’s very nice if they also have a social benefit.”
3. Find an environment for doing science in which other people are smarter than you
A lot of people feel good if they’re the smartest person in the room. That’s not good for conducting science, Varmus says. You should always look for people who are smart and from which you can learn.
4. Science is best practiced as a team sport, not solitary activity
Contrary to common belief, science is not a solitary activity. Small teams are okay, large teams are okay, it doesn’t matter — but if you’re locked up in a cave doing science, something is not right.
Of course, having scientific independence is important, but so is being part of a community. There are different types of communities (doesn’t necessarily have to be your colleagues), but the bottom line is you shouldn’t isolate yourself scientifically.
5. Make your work accessible to others
Science can be competitive. It can be a rough field where people are vying to be the first to do something. But keeping your work isolated from others is not the right approach.
This applies to both colleagues and society in general.
6. Seek opportunities to do formal classroom teaching
This one is bound to be a bit controversial. With the many responsibilities you have as a researcher, dedicating time to teaching can seem daunting to some — or at the very least, something that won’t help propel your research. But Varmus says there’s plenty to learn when you do teaching.
“Many of you will be told ‘try to avoid teaching assignments because then you can devote all your time to your laboratory’. No! Working in a classroom is incredibly important. First of all, it often brings you together with your colleagues in meaningful ways that allows you to understand the basis of the kind of work you’re doing yourself. It also provides interactions with students that are extremely rewarding and sometimes may lead to your having recruited doctoral students into your own labs.”
7. Science depends on societal support: find a way to help
Society depends on science, but science also depends on society. For scientists, it’s important to be aware of this and keep society in mind in your work.
8. Science is never free of politics: it should serve society and vice versa
This follows from the next one and yet again, it’s bound to annoy some people. But here’s the thing: sure, there are private funders, there are foundations that support researchers, “but a lot of what we do as scientists has a direct relationship to the political process,” Varmus says. The laureate also took a moment to address the situation regarding science skepticism in the US, which is concerning.
“That’s a very troubling topic in the US at the moment, in part because distrust of science has become polarized.”
9. Science is inherently international
If science relies on collaboration, and if communities are important, then no doubt, science can only be international. This is particularly the case in the US.
“Science in America has always depended on people coming from other countries to work in our labs, do research, and sometimes stay in the US.”
10. Science can inspire, unite us, teach us what it means to be human
Ultimately, science isn’t usually a field that pays really well. It also isn’t a field where you work kind hours. It’s stressful, challenging, and difficult. But it’s worth it. Humans are innately curious, and this stands even more true for scientists.
“Science is a source of inspiration. It brings us humans to appreciate the universe,” Varmus concludes.
The world needs scientists
We need scientists who remain curious, ambitious, and who are always willing to push the boundaries of what is known. This means we need environments that support, rather than stifle, young researchers. It means we need mentors like Varmus who are willing to share their wisdom, and encourage the next generation of scientists to create their own paths, despite the inevitable trials and tribulations they will face.
Science is a shared endeavor that transcends national borders. It is a quest for understanding what unites us as humans and how we can grow. It is also, as Varmus emphasizes, a service to humanity. These lessons may not be applicable to everyone, but having a good, healthy set of lessons to guide your life in science is never a bad idea.
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